Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Advance Book Review: Betaball by Erik Malinowski

Release Date: October 3, 2017

Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History is a decent chronicle of the Golden State Warriors' recent run of success, though I was disappointed by its light treatment of the "how" in its subtitle. The reader doesn't gain much insight into how the team utilized cutting-edge analytics and technological platforms to forge its success, with the book instead focusing largely on season-by-season recaps with little additional analysis. At its worst it reads like a digest of game recaps with details the average Warriors fan is likely already familiar with. There are a few compelling passages when author Erik Malinowski covers some of the innovations and strategies leveraged by the Warriors' players and front office, but I can't recommend the book too strongly to the casual NBA fan. Warrior fans should get some enjoyment out of Betaball, though they should be forewarned that there may not be a ton of new material for them. 

The book does start out strongly, outlining the storied history of the Warriors and how former owner Chris Cohan helped drive the team deep into the Western Conference doldrums, at one point going 19 seasons without reaching the playoffs. There are also detailed profiles of major actors in the team's turnaround, such as new owner Joe Lacob, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist who attempted to apply his business philosophies to running the Warriors. The Warriors have their fair share of quirky and engaging characters, and when Malinowski describes how Lacob built his front office or covers coach Steve Kerr's cosmopolitan childhood Betaball at times feels like Michael Lewis' book chronicling another Bay Area professional sports franchise looking to gain competitive advantages through unorthodox means. Malinowski is the lead writer for the Warriors on Bleacher Report and has been published in Wired and Rolling Stone. He clearly has a lot of passion for his subject and to his credit the book is well-researched and comprehensive. There are brief mentions of how Lacob tried to change the company's culture and emphasize analytics and apply the business principles that served him so well in the VC world to basketball. 

From time to time Malinowski will mention advanced new technologies utilized by the Warriors, though he is frustratingly light on details or analysis. The Warriors were early adopters of player-tracking software such as SportVU, developed proprietary performance metrics, and even tracked player psychographics to help manage cultural fits and personalities. They even gave Kevin Durant virtual reality goggles to simulate the experience of walking out onto the Oracle Arena as a Warrior when they were recruiting him, and while the technology fritzed out during their meeting it seems that it didn't turn off KD from the team. As someone who is fascinated by such technologies, I wish Malinowski spent more time outlining how the Warriors employed such tools. I understand that team officials might be tight-lipped about such matters, but Malinowski could try to reach out to the founders of such platforms and tools to speak in broad terms about how their stuff works (readers interested in learning more about such things should check out Brandon Sneed's Head in the Game, which features many company founders more than happy to tout their products). Many of the "season recap" books can quickly descend into monotony and read like box scores tied together with a tiny bit of prose, and Betaball succumbs to this at times. The Warriors' unorthodox approach to running a team offered Malinowski a compelling angle to enliven the rather staid recap genre and I feel like he could have done more with it. 

The bulk of Betaball is season-by-season reviews of the Warriors' campaigns, beginning with Steph Curry's rookie season in 2009-2010. Malinowski highlights notable games and off-court happenings and draws heavily from primary sources. To my knowledge Malinowski didn't conduct any additional interviews for the book, so what you get is basically a series of game recaps without much additional insight. As someone who likes basketball but is not a Warriors fan, this format grew tiresome as I became bored by Malinowski reciting Curry's shooting performances, describing a few key plays, and noting controversial/incendiary/insightful comments uttered in press conferences. The book covers the 2009-2010 season through the 2015-2016 season (with a brief epilogue covering the Warriors' Finals win in 2017) and there is no real suspense or tension for any reader who paid one iota of attention to general basketball happenings over the last few years. Will the Warriors break the record for best regular season record? Will the Warriors blow their 3-1 Finals lead to the Cavs? Will Kevin Durant come to Oakland? Spoiler Alert: Yes, Yes, Yes. I realize that society's collective memory and attention span seems to get shorter and shorter, but the average reader is probably well aware what went down in the 2016 NBA Finals, and rehashing events without much additional analysis isn't going to be all that engaging. 

While parts of this review can be rightly interpreted as harsh, Beta Ball is a fine entry in the "season recap" genre. My disappointment is a result of Malinowski devoting too many pages to the "what" (the Warriors winning a lot) and not enough to the "how" that helped them turn around the franchise. If you're a fan of the team you will probably enjoy rekindling these largely positive memories, but average fans may be left wanting more. 

5.5 / 10

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